For most of his life, mozzarella was the only kind of cheese Francis Garcia would even consider sprinkling on a pizza.
“When I was growing up, it was Polly-O, Polly-O, Polly-O,” says the Artichoke Basille’s Pizza co-founder, who started working with his cousin Sal Basille at the family’s Staten Island restaurant long before the two opened their own pizzeria on the border of Gramercy and the East Village in 2008.
Then the Midwest introduced him to cheddar — the caramelized, crispy kind on the corner of a Detroit-style pie.
“It tasted like a Cheez-It,” recalls Garcia, 40, who’s set out to replicate the effect at the Detroit-style pizza counter he opened in Chelsea this week.
Lions & Tigers & Squares, its clever name a nod to the Motor City’s football and baseball teams and “The Wizard of Oz” (“Who the hell didn’t watch ‘The Wizard of Oz?’” Garcia says of the allusion to the classic film: “Everyone comes in and they go, ‘Oh pie, oh my!’”), is serving rectangular pies and squares baked in carbon-steel pans and layered with tomato sauce over a diced cheddar-and-provolone blend.
Multiple sources trace the variation on a Sicilian pie to the Detroit bar-turned-pizzeria Buddy’s, which has been serving its signature pies since 1946. Legend says owner August “Gus” Guerra and his wife baked the first-ever Detroit-style pizzas in factory pans previously used for spare parts.
Garcia isn’t the first to import the Midwestern invention to New York; the credit for that typically goes to Matt and Emily Hyland, the married duo who introduced New Yorkers to their Detroit-“inspired” square pies with creative toppings at Emmy Squared in Williamsburg in 2016.
But Garcia says his standing-room-only shop with three high top tables and ledges is the city’s only quick-service spot offering a taste of Buddy’s, where he sought advice from the pros and interior decorating ideas in 2013.
“We make it almost identical to they way they do it in Detroit,” says the pizzaiolo who’s shaping the pies in 6-by-8-inch steel pans behind the counter, while his cousin prepares the dough in the basement. (Sicilian pies, by contrast, are typically prepared in slower-heating cast-iron pans.)
“We do a very intricate proofing process with the dough, so it’s very light, very puffy,” Garcia explains. “When it cooks in the oven, you get the crisp outside, the burnt cheese all around, and it’s nice and soft in the middle.”
The pizza maker pours tomato sauce — a spicier, richer kind than the one at Artichoke, enhanced with onion, garlic and oregano — onto the pies after they’ve baked, keeping it moist.
Where Garcia draws the distinction between Lions, Tigers and Squares and Buddy’s product is the oven. A traditional Detroit-style pizza calls for a conveyor-belt model that cooks pies one-by-one; Garcia’s fast-casual operation cooks up to 40 pies at a time in the kind of gas deck oven found at most New York slice joints.
Customers can order a plain, personal-sized pie for $5, with toppings like hand-cut pepperoni, whole olives and miniature meatballs for $2 extra. Pizzas with crusts roughly one-and-a-half-inch thick are displayed in their pans on the counter, awaiting reheating under Tiffany-style pendant lights.
The lamps aren’t Lions, Tigers and Square’s only homage to the late ‘60s, ‘70s retro-style on display at Buddy’s. A color palate dominated by gold and maroon evokes the decades-old space, and a vinyl, diamond-patterned floor duplicates the one in Detroit.
From there, Garcia’s inspiration expands to the entire city, taking cues from local celebrities (photos of homegrown stars like comedian Eddie Murphy and running back Barry Sanders line the walls), the automobile manufacturers headquartered there (hubcaps serve as wall accents, too) and the architecture (outdoor signage evokes movie theater marquees common in Detroit).
With its glass doors opening onto a busy 23rd Street near the corner of 8th Avenue, Lions & Tigers & Squares is currently operating for five to six hours a day, but aims to keep hours that meet both lunchtime needs and late-, late-night cravings (11 a.m. to 5 a.m.). (It may open even earlier, when Garcia finishes tinkering around with an egg, sausage and onion-topped breakfast pie.) The counter-service spot has attracted a wide clientele in its first few days, Garcia says: “I’m getting the pizza geeks, I’m getting the foodies, the cops, the Con-Edison workers, the residents, the older people, the younger.”
Chelsea offers a different vibe than the original Artichoke Pizza’s stomping grounds, he reports: “In the East Village, there are a lot more people throwing up outside — I don’t mean from the pizza, but the partying.”
As for where Lions & Tigers & Squares fits into the quickly expanding Artichoke Pizza portfolio (the chain recently opened a new location in Staten Island and is now franchising its concept), Garcia says the pizzeria is its “own entity.” The Gramercy resident and his cousin, Basille, plan to “see where it goes.”
In the meantime, Garcia has enough on his plate to keep him focused on the present: “It’s like having a baby in the beginning,” he says of his brainchild. “You just worry about every single little stupid friggin’ thing.”